When I was in high school, I went to Tower Records (R.I.P.) and purchased a book called The Teenage Liberation Handbook, a story that came to be enormously influential in the development of my teenage politics/terrible personality. Over the next three years, I had three major campaign platforms, among them: (1) the suburbs are empty and should be destroyed; (2) public school is a machine and homeroom is a control tactic and; (3) the liberation will not be found in lit club. My story was uninteresting and my problems even less so, but that didn’t stop John Green and the producers of Paper Towns from making a movie that so earnestly, so un-ironically, explores this middle-class suburban ennui and gives it an emotional weight (and $12 million dollars worth of funding) it simply doesn’t deserve.
To say that a movie covers familiar territory shouldn’t necessarily be a disqualifier. Boyhood, for example, covers some of the same content areas—suburban adolescence, coming-of-age, ugh “being an artist”—and gives it new form, as well as an actually mature resonance. You could hear the people behind the tropes, and the nuance behind the strictures. Stories and movies can explore middle-class white adolescence successfully if they don’t take some of their teenagers’ hyperbolic pseudo-trauma (Jocks are mean! It’s hard to be sensitive! The only person who understands me is my comic book!) at face value. These stories have been told a thousand times before—which doesn’t mean they can’t be told again—but a speck of self-awareness goes a long way.
You could honestly guess the plot for Paper Towns without me ever describing it. But in the name of satisfying word counts, let’s proceed. Quentin Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), annoyingly known as Q, is a well-behaved Florida teenager who’s got his big, boring sights set on Duke and a medical degree. Quentin is in love with his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), who successfully manages to be a teenage rebel, despite having a name that came out of early 20th century Jewish Lower East Side. One night, Margo and Quentin go out for a wild night on the town, which includes a midnight trip to BJ’s (the insanity!), spray paint (whaaaat), and something boring I don’t remember. Anyways, Quentin’s heart and boners grow bigger by the minute, until the moment Margo decides to skip town, leaving our hero with a broken heart, and several incomprehensible clues.
It’s at this point the movie makes the semi-successful transition from romantic comedy to teenage thriller. You could hear the reasonable people in the audience breathe a collective sigh of relief as Q and his two main pals start to collect “clues” instead of jokes, and the dialogue slowly sharpens. Margo leaves a bunch of clues for Q in the form of Woody Guthrie lyrics and Walt Whitman poems, and Q and his friends do their best to decode them. To be fair, director Jake Schreier paces this teenage dork mystery well, even if the suspense only rises to the level of the PBS masterpiece, Ghostwriter. Austin Abrams (playing Ben) and Justice Smith (playing Radar) execute above-average performances as Q’s sidekicks and fellow detectives. They’re no Alex or Lenny, but their actual personalities give a much-needed dynamism to a script led by an understated hero, teenage ennui, and the looming threat of “college.”
To be fair, Schreier and Green offer up a few unexpected twists as well, rescuing the movie from its otherwise blissful banality. Margo is a compelling, if familiar, suburban femme fatale: sarcastic and beautiful, smart, but too cool for school (Imagine Roseanne’s Darlene played by an international supermodel). She’s a runaway wild child, but Green, to his outrageous credit, doesn’t make her a “woman in need of rescuing” and doesn’t allow Q to rescue her. In fact, Q realizes his initial perception of her might have been quite off, and comes to understand her as an actual human. For this, I give Paper Towns a round of completely earnest credit: it’s a teenage blockbuster coming-of-age story where the main character actually kind of sort of COMES OF AGE, and a hero recognizes the limitations of his vision. Good for Schreier and good for Green for giving us a somewhat unsatisfactory ending in the name of understated emotional justice.
Despite its strengths, Paper Towns can’t save seem to save itself from its blandola concept and white bread execution. Cara Delevingne is almost good as Margo, but not enough to save herself from some of the movie’s more excruciating bits of dialogue (“Did Margo go after mystery—or did she create it?” was a line I hoped I could forget by now). It kind of almost makes you miss some of the wit in The Fault in our Stars, but you can’t because—oh man, The Fault in our Stars. The teenagers may talk more like real teenagers in this version—which is to say, terrible—but the script (I think) did it by accident. What do you want me to say? This movie is dumb.
The summer between high school and college, I conveniently lost my copy of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, and moved onto a new campaign: “the bubble.” My college was “in a bubble.” My hometown was “in a bubble.” Thankfully, as a 17-year-old who “didn’t watch TV” (double ugh), I could see it all—which is to say, nothing at all. Paper Towns seems to suffer from the same emotional self-absorption: a movie about teenagers trying to break through boundaries that never needed to be broken, and strike new paths in a forest that always has been, and always will be, protected. A healthy amount of self-deprecating humor and self-awareness would have saved this well-intentioned (if meek) script from eternal mediocrity. But oh well, too late, life’s too sunny in “the bubble,” and the money ain’t bad either.
Heather Dockray is a writer and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org.